Rules and regulations in mind, I begin thinking that canal trips are for honing the art of doing nothing while doing something. Or perhaps the other way round. Either way, for a victim of proper, pressing ‘to do’ lists, this is a welcome break. So Julie and I continue our relaxation while the boys get to grips with the task of steering their 68ft-long steel protuberance through tiny bridges.
The first lock is the deepest
It’s a little intimidating, but with the help of the Stavenger Fjord crew – regulars on this canal – we manage to work it out. Eventually. Aargh… physics, it comes back to laugh at you.
The etiquette with bridges is a little easier. It’s first come first served, though our chit-chat is again interrupted by the massive burps of horns. But the weather, after such a miserably wet August, turns out to be gloriously dry and mild, perfect for wellies and sunglasses, my choice of fashion on this trip.
Unlike a virgin
At the second lock we’re much quicker now that we’re not lock virgins. We sit back and guffaw like old sea dogs, marvelling at man’s engineering feats, from Big Bang to this (or should it be the other way around?). And so our first day continues, moving along at 5mph, with the clouds so fast and the Empress so gloriously slow.
Negotiating locks can become quite a social occasion. We meet a lady from Holland at the lock and ask her why the boats are called Dutch barges. She replies quizzically, ‘They’re not. They are narrowboats.’ Fat Dutch barges, we discover, wouldn’t fit on the Llangollen Canal. It was Julie’s faux pas, so she gets her coat… Undeterred I ask another question:
‘How do British canals compare with those in the Netherlands?’ ‘Our canals are on a much bigger scale, with mechanised locks,’ she says. They came to Wales for a more sedate experience and the chance to cruise over the approaching aqueduct. Aqueduct? I suddenly remember that I’m afraid of heights.
Get off my cloud
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is the high point of the canal – or any canal in Britain for that matter. The aqueduct, a narrow trough of water, carries the boat 1,000ft across the Dee Valley. This extraordinary ‘waterway in the sky’ is 126ft up in the air, and there are no railings on the side of the boat. Fortified by two glasses of wine, I lie on the warm steel deck and look down over the side at the valley floor above which we seem to fly. It’s an incredible feeling. Now that I’m up this high I don’t want to go down....
Ten minutes later we safely cruise into Trevor and find a mooring. We’ll go no further today in Empress Two.
We walk into the Thomas Telford pub (he’s the man who built the aqueduct) for some beer and steak. We talk about the Olympics then retire to the boat for an iPod party... Elvis, Dusty, Queen, Al Green. The dining area becomes the narrowest dance floor in the world and does a grand job, witnessing two splits, a back bend and five iPods’ worth of fighting over selections. Suddenly it’s three in the morning. Definitely time to sleep.
Baby, it's warm outside
I wake at eight. Some crew members are nursing hangovers, so I start cooking breakfast on the barbecues we bought at Paul’s Shop alongside the second lock. My pick-me-up recipe? Sizzling sausages, bacon, black pudding… and aubergine (try it – split one in two, score the inside, sprinkle with rock salt, black pepper and olive oil, then cook till very, very soft the canal with the whole day stretching in front of us has to be one of the best feelings in the world. Like a lovely, gargantuan yawn.
Later, we cruise back across the aqueduct. It seems even higher this morning, having listened to some local scaremongering about the thinness of the steel holding the canal water in place.
So now’s not the time to take the tiller. Ben and Dave do a masterly job and soon we’re turning into Chirk Marina. It’s another beautiful day, sun shining through the branches, clouds so white, grass so green. We almost play golf but settle for a half of lager and quiet appraisal of the greens from the balcony of the bar.
We take on more water for the Empress then it’s back to canal life. At teatime we find a place to moor and peg ourselves to the bank. Assorted conversations about guinea pigs, tigers, ducks and Christians follow. We fall in with a group of sexagenarian pirates from a neighbouring boat, then eat well and play pool in the local pub. This time, we’re respectfully asleep by midnight.
End of story, morning glory
And what a beautiful morning you find along the banks of the Llangollen Canal. I wake to a blanket of mist slowly dissolving into another clear day on the water.
Over the last few days I’ve learned the importance of slowing down, both literally and metaphorically. We warm the engine and I take a turn at the tiller so that I can now say that I can drive – or is it pilot? – a long narrowboat under bridges and around curves.
We drift back into base and reluctantly leave the waters for our city lives. Ben reckons that the fact we didn’t sink was a testament to our unsinkability... and that floating has never been so much fun.